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Image / Editorial

Irish novelist Edna O’Brien wins ‘UK and Ireland Nobel in literature’


by Jennifer McShane
27th Nov 2019
Irish novelist Edna O’Brien wins ‘UK and Ireland Nobel in literature’

Her books have been banned and burned, but at 88, the renowned Irish author is still a star of the literary world


Edna O’Brien has been awarded the prestigious 2019 David Cohen Prize for Literature in London on Tuesday evening.

The £40,000 prize, awarded every two years in recognition of a living writer’s lifetime achievement in literature, has been described as the “UK and Ireland Nobel in literature”.

She was described as “one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century…  who has broken down social and sexual barriers for women in Ireland and beyond and moved mountains both politically and lyrically through her writing”.

Born and raised in a small village in County Clare, her first and highly successful novel, The Country Girls, was banned and even incurred a burning in the grounds of her local chapel when it was first published in 1960. Since then she has written over 20 novels, over five works of drama and four works of non-fiction including her memoir, Country Girl. 

“Brilliant consistency, literary skill, courage”

She was nominated and selected by a panel of judges under the chair Mark Lawson, who said of the author: “Edna O’Brien has achieved a rare arc of brilliant consistency, her literary skill, courage, and impact as apparent in a novel published as recently as September as in her first book, which appeared 60 years ago.”

Girl, her 24th work of fiction, was published to acclaim this year, and here is the IMAGE review, printed in the October issue of IMAGE Magazine:

For Edna O’Brien’s Girl (Faber & Faber, approx €14.99), the author embarked on what she described as exhausting and sometimes fearsome journeys to Nigeria in order to adequately and truthfully portray the harrowing ordeal of young women abducted and subjected to the sadistic savagery of Boko Haram. To the jihadists who control this reign of terror, they are victims, but Maryam and the other women only fight. To hold onto themselves, to find a way home.

Taken from school when she was only a girl, her capture marks the end of any childhood innocence. This story is haunting and unflinching: one of abduction, rape and imprisonment recounted with raw detail by our Nigerian narrator. Maryam’s matter-of-factness in describing such brutal acts is heartbreaking, using her carefully hidden diary as a tool for survival; to write as a will to keep going, to never let them win. O’Brien enters new territory with this story, which is based loosely on the schoolgirl abductions of the Nigerian town of Chibok in April 2014, and the result is immensely powerful. Even in darkness, it is tinged with hope. A must-read.


Main photograph: @Anna_Mazz

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